A cardiac intensive care nurse from Washington, D.C., with expertise in heart rhythm, airway and pain management, her skills are in great demand as infections and hospitalizations skyrocket nationwide. Houze is among more than 500 nurses, doctors and other medical staff California has brought in and deployed to hospitals that are running out of capacity to treat the most severe COVID-19 cases.
Her six-week assignment started Monday in San Bernardino, about 60 miles (97 kilometers) east of Los Angeles, and she anticipates working 14-hour shifts with a higher-than-usual caseload. San Bernardino County has 1,545 people in hospitals and more than 125 are in makeshift “surge" beds, which are being used because regular hospital space isn't available.
“I expect patients to die. That’s been my experience: they die, I put them in body bags, the room gets cleaned and then another patient comes,” Houze said.
Much of California has exhausted its usual ability to staff intensive care beds, and the nation's most populated state is desperately searching for 3,000 temporary medical workers to meet demand. State officials are reaching out to foreign partners in places like Australia and Taiwan amid a shortage of temporary medical workers in the US, particularly nurses trained in critical care.
Gov. Gavin Newsom said the state has relationships with countries that provide aid during crises such as wildfires.
“We’re now in a situation where we have surges all across the country, so nobody has many nurses to spare,” said Dr. Janet Coffman, a professor of public policy at the University of California, San Francisco.
California hospitals typically turn to staffing agencies during flu season, when they rely on travel nurses to meet patient care needs. It is the only state in the nation with strict nurse-to-patient ratios requiring hospitals to provide one nurse for every two patients in intensive care and one nurse for every four patients in emergency rooms, for example.
However, those ratio requirements are being waived at many hospitals as virus cases surge.
But the pool of available travel nurses is drying up as demand for them jumped to 44% over the last month, with California, Texas, Florida, New York and Minnesota requesting the most extra staff, according to San Diego-based health care staffing firm Aya Healthcare. It is one of two companies contracted by California to fulfill hospitals' staffing requests.